This is part three of a five-part series focused on innovative rural leadership in North Carolina. To read the other profiles go here.
I heard ‘rural’ and I knew I had to attend because that’s what I’m all about. -Jesus Padilla
Jesus Padilla remembers what it was like to grow up in Monterrey, Mexico.
“On many occasions, we slept on the floor. A dirt floor, basically, is all it was,” Padilla recalls. He and his siblings would eat a soup made from chicken bones boiled to make stock. “Sometimes that soup would last four, five days,” he says. “It was all we had.”
His father, a diesel mechanic by trade, came to the U.S. when Padilla was a teenager in search of work. As a graduate of a theological seminary, his father was also presented with the opportunity to start a church for the nascent Latino community in Ashe County. He also worked harvesting Christmas trees, sending every paycheck back to Mexico to support his family. But the money his father made was still not enough to support the family, so Padilla would go to school all day back home and in the evenings bag groceries. Because of his age, however, he could not be hired as a full-time employee, so his paycheck, if any, was the tips he received from customers.
In the winter of 1998, Padilla and his family immigrated to the U.S., presenting their documents at the border in Texas, where they waited for months for snow and ice to melt in western North Carolina. After settling in Ashe County, the family lived in a single-wide trailer. But they were together. On the journey into this country, Jesus—who spoke no English—decided he would devote himself to service.
He was at a fried chicken restaurant in Texas, fresh off of a long, uncomfortable bus ride. He went into the restaurant to order some food for his mother and siblings, but because he didn’t speak the language, he couldn’t read the menu or place an order. Two men began to talk about him, and Padilla later came to understand that one man was encouraging the other to help the teenager with his order. But the second man refused. It wasn’t his problem, he said, to help a Mexican kid who didn’t know this country’s official language.
“I made a promise to the Lord,” Padilla says today. “I said, ‘If you help me learn this language, and if people need help, I’ll be more than willing to help them.’”
Two decades later, Padilla is living that promise.
As the outreach coordinator for the Ashe & Allegheny Farmworker Health Program for the past four years, Padilla serves a Latino population facing chronic and acute health challenges. Many of the agricultural workers he serves spend part of the year harvesting North Carolina’s renowned Christmas trees. But when they get hurt or sick, they often turn to Padilla. “We’re the middle gap between the patient and the doctor,” he says. Padilla interprets during medical appointments, translates forms, and helps with case management to ensure clients receive the best possible health care. “We try to get the communication going between them so they understand each other,” he says.
The challenges Padilla faces in his work are profound.
Many of the clients he serves are sick or injured but haven’t sought the care they need because of language or transportation barriers, a lack of after-hours service, or misinformation found on the internet. “They don’t know where to go, who to talk to, how much it’s going to cost,” Padilla says. “There is so much misinformation out there on YouTube and Google and all these websites. People will search online to find out what’s wrong. They think, ‘I can’t go to the doctor, I don’t know where to go, I don’t have transportation. Well, maybe the internet can tell me what’s wrong with me.’ By the time I come to see them, they think they’re going to die.”
Some of his clients are contemplating moving back to their home countries because they are so despondent about their medical conditions.
In addition, many of the agricultural workers he serves cannot afford expensive care. “These guys that work in the agriculture area, they don’t make more than $20,000. And it’s a family of five or seven,” Padilla says. He recounts the story of a recent client whose prescription medication was scheduled to cost $445 for one bottle of 30 pills that would last a month. “It’s so incredibly heartbreaking. It’s frustrating for them. It’s frustrating for us.”
“It breaks my heart because I wish I could do more. I wish I had more available resources.”
With the resources he does have, Padilla provides hope.
Deeply invested in his work, Padilla and a colleague serve 500 to 600 people a year. They hope to secure more grant funding to bring on another caseworker to serve another 300 clients annually.
A professional connection told Padilla about the NC Rural Center’s Rural Economic Development Institute (REDI), and encouraged him to apply to the program as another way to boost his abilities. REDI is the organization’s flagship leadership development program that gives participants the opportunity to learn collaborative leadership skills and rural economic development strategies to help them return home and make a meaningful difference in their rural communities.
“Everything about the program was intriguing to me,” he says. He attended REDI in 2018, and found the coursework both challenging and rewarding.
“There was a lot of wording above my grade level,” Padilla says. “I have never been to a business or professional class like that.
One of the key takeaways from REDI was the value of partnerships. “It was so interesting to learn about cooperation and how people from many different backgrounds will be able to work together,” he says. Those lessons are particularly valuable in his work in the healthcare field, which is inherently crowded and necessitates the participation of many partners. “It scares the daylights out of people.”
One of his current initiatives is to convince clinics to open earlier or serve patients later into the day so that his farm workers can get the help they need. “We focus so much from 8-to-5,” he says. “We have a saying about working from sunrise to sunset, but these guys work from before the sun rises and they stop after the sun sets.”
Padilla is motivated by his Christian faith, and by the experiences he had growing up in poverty, immigrating to the U.S., learning English, building a career, and helping his fellow North Carolinians. It’s what drove him to apply for REDI and it is what drives him to continue his work, despite all of the challenges.
“My purpose,” he says, “is to serve other people.”